Malaysiakini Opinion

‘Joker’ Mat Sabu will have the last laugh

Phar Kim Beng  |  Published:  |  Modified:

COMMENT | Najib Abdul Razak seems to be overcompensating for his somnambulic tenure as prime minister of late with an impressive amount of political statements.

More and more, almost as if the “elegant silence” which he had acquired from his predecessor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is now but a past he wants to quickly consign to the dust heap of history.

From calling Dr Mahathir Mohamad an "old man" prior to the May 9 polls, Najib’s latest insult was aimed at Mohamad Sabu, when he called the defence minister a “joker.” But this "joker" may well be the ace in the pack of cards.

Pakatan Harapan did not come this far without knowing their own shortcomings and weaknesses. Mohamad is not the weakest link. He may, in fact, be their strongest.

Mohamad is the MP of Kota Raja – an urban constituency in Klang that can largely look after its own interests, meaning that he is free from having to play up to the internecine calls of his constituents. In other words, he can hit as hard as anyone in, or, outside of Parliament.

By challenging Najib to repeat his insult in Parliament, Mohamad threw down the gauntlet: fight me in the ring, and I will take you down.

But even without stepping onto the mat, Mohamad already delivered his knockout punch: “Whether I only know how to cook or whether I’m not good at governing, what’s important is I will never steal peoples’ money.”

From now on, any of Najib's attacks against any lawmaker will be met with the same putdown – especially now that he can no longer instruct the courts to gag critics on his behalf.

All Harapan’s future counterattacks will revolve around the same theme, as Mahathir did recently when he asked if it would be better for Malaysia went “back to the era when the nation was known as a kleptocracy led by a kleptocrat.”

100 days

By Aug 17, the Harapan government would have reached a small but significant milestone: 100 days in office. While not all issues can be tackled within that window, measured against the excesses of the previous administration, almost everything now looks kosher.

Mohamad has been no less stellar. The twice-Internal Security Act 1960 detainee has faced down the previous administration’s oppressive structures before, and did not blink. Meaning that he is well-equipped to confront any issue, even those of national import.

An article listing his qualities as a fighter cites a video conversation he had with Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng about their days together in ISA detention, in which he says: “I absolutely hate democratic countries that don’t practice democracy.”

Mohamad’s involvement in numerous Bersih rallies is a testament to his dedication to democracy, once even famously resting on a plastic sheet in the street with just his yellow Bersih T-shirt draped over him.

The article also points out that Mohamad is one of a handful of politicians to have formed his own party, Amanah.

With 11 MPs in the Dewan Rakyat, Mohamad and his deputy president Salahuddin Ayub – who provide a cerebral and calming presence – the party is under sound stewardship.

Popular figure

Winning Kota Raja with an over 70,000-vote majority, it is clear that Mohamad has hit a chord with Malay and non-Malay crowds. It is not abnormal to see Malaysians straining their necks to catch a glimpse of him at ceramah, or taking wefies with him when they see him in public.

By attacking Mohamad, Najib may be trying to be a proactive opposition figure to buttress his positions in Parliament, and ahead of his trial in the courts. But almost all Malaysians know that his game is up.

The haul of close to a billion ringgit worth of gold bullion and jewellery from his multiple residences seem to have confirmed what Mahathir has been saying all along, that his regime was a kleptocracy.

At 30 years younger than Mahathir, it is hard to imagine that Mohamad has forged a close relationship with the prime minister, but that is precisely what has happened.

The chemistry between the pair has been strong, giving Malaysians the unity and stability they have been craving – unlike when the cousins Najib and Hishammuddin Hussein occupied the same roles.

Mohamad will have several things to show for in his first 100 days in office, first and foremost putting a stop to the practice of giving military titles to politicians, to keep them apart from the Armed Forces personnel.

The minister is also working to pull Malaysian troops from the unnecessary enmeshment of Saudi Arabia’s war with Houthi rebels and their allies in Yemen.

With his deputy Liew Chin Tong being put in charge of veterans' affairs, a neat combination seems to have been found.

Mohamad has told his critics to judge him at the end, and not the beginning, of his tenure. But the truth is, he has aced his first 80 days. When Mahathir makes his China trip on the day that Harapan’s 100 days are up, one can be sure that Mohamad will be there to defend national interests.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s maxim of “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger” would seem to apply to Mohamad, one of just a handful of ministers made of the same steely stuff as Mahathir and Anwar – both who also stared down the superstructure of the state and emerged unvanquished.


PHAR KIM BENG is a Harvard/Cambridge Commonwealth Fellow, a former Monbusho scholar at the University of Tokyo and visiting scholar at Waseda University.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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